One morning, I went for a walk. My anxiety and self-consciousness had returned to hound me.
I was exploring the archetypal idea of the "inner child"—that we all carry our childhood selves within us. In trying to get to the root of my own anxiety,
I asked myself "What would my inner child do right now?"
I immediately knew the answer: "Cower in fear."
A lot of my early childhood was spent like that. And in one form or another, that's how I've spent most of my life.
I then asked myself: "What if my inner child didn't have to be afraid?"
Answer: "He would laugh and play and have himself a time."
There's a therapeutic concept that we must "re-parent" ourselves if our parenting was not what it should have been. But I suspect that we are all *always* parenting ourselves. We just don't know it.
The voices of our parents and important mentors early in life can become internalized in our minds — coaching clients I've worked with can sometimes recognize these as distinct, recognizable voices from their past.
("I hear my mother’s stern voice speaking…" Or "my soccer-coach once said that if I practice I could get good, but I’d never be the best.")
It seems we don't just internalize these parental voices, we continue to parent ourselves in the same way.
The negative self-talk we direct at ourselves is those old messages playing on loop.
Except now, instead of those adults speaking to us as a child, it’s our adult selves speaking to the part of our psyche that is still a child.
Year upon year, decade upon decade, our child-self is stuck in the same parenting situation. Only it's not our parents anymore, it's us.
When I am critical of myself, engage in negative self-talk, "do better," "not good enough," "you idiot," I’m not just "talking to myself,” I’m also talking to my inner child, who cowers in fear of me—the parent.
When I am angry, strict, cold, scornful, hateful, disappointed, who was I really beating down and screaming at? That little kid I used to be (and who continues to exist as a part of my psyche).
One strategy for curbing negative self-talk asks us to vocalize or write-down the horrible things we say to ourselves.
The next step is to ask: "would you talk this way to a friend?"
I think the real question is, "would you talk that way to a child?"
That child in us is always listening, and if we're furious with ourselves, then he or she is cowering somewhere in a room deep inside of us while we're yelling from outside the door.
A child wants to be listened to, its feelings trusted and respected.
A child wants to be loved, valued, and wanted.
A child wants to play, laugh, and shamelessly enjoy its own existence.
How often do we do these things for ourselves? How often do we really tune in to those childhood feelings and needs?
They are still there.
In fact, those basic needs are the ones that run our lives. And the wounds that we suffered early in life can define our lives.
Acknowledging that we carry our child-self within us also suggests a beautiful possibility: that we are our own mothers—literally carrying ourselves within us.
Taking that one step further, it suggests the possibility of true union.
Early in life, a child wants loving union with its parents (Freud believed this later becomes transposed in a desire to experience union with God, or whatever occupies the God-space.)
Of course, no physical parent can ever fully satisfy this yearning.
But because, psychologically, we are our own parents carrying our inner child within us, by accepting and loving that child we have the possibility of experiencing that otherwise impossible union of "self" with "other," of child with parent, of lover and beloved.
This is self-love on a deep level: of adult-self for child-self.
In my work, I often guide clients back into the past to interact with, speak with, and embrace their inner child. The effect is powerful and transformative. People describe a sense of relief, of rest, of tranquility afterwards.
“I wish someone had told me these things when I was a kid,” one person said.
In a way, you can.
There’s a part of us that is still that child. Replaying those memories and those experiences again and again.
We can go back and tell them what they need to here—about themselves, about the adults in their lives, about the world.
When we do, we are able to heal not just that young, vulnerable part of us but our adult self, who—whether we know it or not—acts to protect or compensate for the feelings of this child.
If we don’t return to the past to help our inner child, there’s only so much we can do to help ourselves today.
That little one is the seed around which we’ve built the rest of our lives.